Amazing Grace

A. Tobias Grace

Thank you Bill Lewis for suggesting this story be written

It was the autumn of 1964. The social winds of discord were in the air and nowhere more evident than at Trenton State College where the Theta Nu Sigma fraternity roamed the campus with the rebellious attitude that defined the decade. They subsisted on cheap beer and testosterone; ingratiated themselves to the other frats; and enjoyed the affections of the coeds so enchanted by the lure of the “bad boy”. They were loud and ribald; fiercely insular and prone to debauching themselves on weekends.

Yet among this tribal atmosphere walked a young man of extraordinary talent and pedigree. His name was A. Tobias Grace. Affectionately known as Toby. Toby seemed, on the surface, peculiarly out of place in the Theta Nu “Zoo”. While usually clad in the penny loafers and pea jackets so fashionable at the time, it was not uncommon to find him in a three- piece suit, attache’ at hand. He was a gifted artist. Producing a cache of water colors more often than not featuring gnomes, leprechauns, and other denizens of fantasy. An imaginative author of short stories and novellas. But most of all, he was an historian. Not just a history major but a true historian. His knowledge of Victorian times so complete, he seemed to have lived it. In fact, he supposed, in a former carnation, he did.

Tall, slender, pale, even gaunt, Toby stood out from the crowd in a mop of unmistakable flaming red hair. He conducted himself with that aristocratic air reserved for persons of nobility. The perception of royalty came honestly as the Grace line were the first settlers of Matawan back in the 1600’s. They may have been a bizarre lot as events, as you’ll see, were influenced by customs more associated with the Addams Family than any modern American household.

Protests, in the ‘60’s, emerged as a popular expression of disapproval. So when the New Jersey legislature voted to cut funding to higher education, the state colleges erupted with the predictable display of youthful outrage. Busloads of students from Montclair and Paterson, from Glassboro and Newark descended on Trenton State to march on the capitol building. Legions of undergrads lined up for the trek down Pennington Road to State Street. At the front, in full nineteenth century funeral director’s regalia, stood A. Tobias Grace followed directly by six Theta Nu pallbearers carrying the symbolic “death of higher education” coffin. The casket also was Toby’s. One of the oddities of the Grace line. “Why wait until the last minute?”, Toby would say. An impish smile that belied a mischievous alter-ego clarified his tenure in that Neanderthal brotherhood.

Fall turned to winter and, as tradition would have it, a choral group of Theta Nu’s, vestiges of by-gone days when it was a placid music fraternity, would regale the campus with Christmas carols on the eve of winter break. They would march from dorm to dorm; from Bliss Hall to Ely House to Norsworthy and Decker Hall, entertaining the residents in a manner totally out of sync with their reputation.

The evening ended at the residence of the president of the college. In this case, Dr Warren Hill, a rather pompous autocrat whose signature achievement may have been the paving of parking lot #3. The event would be capped with tea and crumpets in his living room.

One of the songs was the “Boar’s Head”, a fifteenth century Gregorian chant, part English, part Latin. President Hill was quite intrigued with this rendition and wondered aloud if anyone knew anything about it. Of course, no one did. Except Toby. Toby, who was able to identify its genesis, derivation from pagan ritual to Renaissance entertainment, and ultimately inclusion into Christmas ceremony. The historian in him blossomed and he soon had President Hill spellbound by his ancillary stories.

At some point, he suggested to his audience that it was shameful that Trenton State College had never seen fit to honor some historical personage with, at the very least, a statue or monument. Surely every institute of higher learning would bear tribute to one martyr or another. Warren Hill totally agreed and so commissioned Toby to form a delegation that would research someone to celebrate. No one was ever better suited to the task.

First he enlisted Jim Ruocco, his roommate. He saw no need to bother anyone else. It was decided the Bishop of Albee, a little known and unheralded clergyman of the 1500’s should be the honoree. Toby was able to eloquently praise the Bishop’s good deeds, charitable offerings, and self-sacrifices. He emphasized his piety and bemoaned his exclusion from sainthood. He produced parchment sketches and reproductions of long-lost portraits. He amassed letters and verifiable documents attesting to the man’s achievements.

All of this was forwarded to President Hill who passed it on, with his recommendation, to the Board of Trustees, who voted to allot ten thousand dollars for a statue honoring the Bishop of Albee that would be erected on the campus square known as Quimby’s Prairie. But alas! The budget cuts at the state level filtered down to the college and some projects were put on the chopping block. This was one of them. In hindsight, maybe it was just as well. You see, the Bishop of Albee did exist – but only in Toby’s mind!

A. Tobias Grace passed away on Jan. 6 at the age of 74. He was my mentor and together with Mark Twain the influence for my writing. I will miss my brother.

4 comments

  1. Thanks for this, Steve.
    A truly unique individual.
    Such a loss but a such wonderful memories just knowing him.
    Ecce. Pete Angelakos

    Like

  2. Bravo, Steve! You have captured the brother that we all knew many years ago. I fondly remember seeing him walking across campus with his briefcase and umbrella. When I pledged Toby gave me merits for artistic excellence – but I cannot describe the situation here.

    Like

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